Breaking 4

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“The man will die first.” Raptor punctuated the sentence with a diving swipe that Karla beat her wings backwards to avoid. “Poor pathetic Griffin. So desperate to be a hero to his town. So perpetually a hero to nobody.”

Lightning cracked. A bolt struck Raptor, suffusing his body, but sloughed off as harmlessly as water might.

“They think him mad, in Rust Town. After tonight, they would know if for sure…if any of them were destined to survive.”

The black Heartsphere vision threatened to take over. Karla felt already there in that room, already helpless against the explosion and the death of everyone she loved.

“The little girl next, I think. Her lungs are weaker than she believes. So full of bravery, destined to leave a mark. Jenny will be forgotten, like Hannah before her.”

She had to fight back. She reached out for everything she’d seen, in this last awful wonderful month, in the last ten years. The Rusters opening their homes to her. Jenny and Calvin, charging into battle by her side. The City Council balcony burning and Aiden falling to his death. Rose kissing Griffin goodbye. The blue-glowing crystal. The fleet of planes taking off.

Think of life. Of normal. Of the future.

“And then there is Kio,” Raptor intoned. They circled each other in the sky-arena bounded by dark winds. Each beat their wings in a rhythm. “The last of the Rokhshan. What a stupid line they turned out to be. Out of hundreds of muckgrubbers, how could I be so unfortunate as to uplift these?”

Falling toward the ocean in the middle of the crescent of mountains. Kio waiting by her side as she came out of her poisoned trance. Kio attacking her in the grip of gas-induced hypnosis and holding her as she relived her own awful memories of Year Zero. Kio climbing across the sky toward her, chased by the zealous Medwick. Kio, Kio, always Kio, the other half of her soul, the other side of her sky.

“He will die,” Raptor said slowly, savoring the words, “doing something he believes is going to save your life.”

Karla beat her wings harder. Left and right, left and right, left to evade Raptor’s feint, right to parry the real attack with a kick.

“It will be rather deliciously ironic.”

Ever upward. Had to climb. Had to get closer to the sky.

***

“Jenny,” Kio said as they backed toward the center of the basin, “I need the bomb.”

He tried to hide the wheezing from his voice. The roaring patter of the rain should have done it. But she somehow must have heard how hard it was becoming for him to breathe the green air.

She fired a bolt over his shoulder and locked in the next one. Her gas mask twitched. “Uncle Griff!” he yelled. “Kio’s got a plan!”

Griffin briefly turned from swinging his club as Kio thought, that’s an exaggeration. But he knew where he had to go, and that was a start.

“I haven’t got a mask,” he told Jenny, “so there’s only one way I can survive this. And it starts with you giving me that bomb right now.”

Jenny tossed him the canister and tried to smile. “Go nuts.”

“Keep them busy,” Kio shouted to them both.

“Let it touch the Heartsphere!” Griffin called back. “Let it end!”

“Kio!” Jenny said as he clambered up the edge of the basin. “I wish I could have known you better.”

“I’m glad Karla got to know you.”

She broke into a real smile then, and reloaded. Kio ran.

“Come and get me!” he bellowed to the bone dragons circling over head. “It’s me, the last Rokhshan! Kill me and you get whatever the hell it is you’re looking for on my castle!”

Neogah broke off from the vortex swirling around the three towers. Two, three, four. Good. Let them all come.

“Kill me…and at least I’ll end up somewhere else!”

He hurtled between the port-side towers, holding the explosive canister aloft. The Neogah wove after him, or moved to cut him off, but he was too fast: leaping for the counterweight at the end of one of his and Karla’s fast-travel pulleys, he kicked the jug off the ledge and rode it down.

Halfway down the wall, with the Neogah beating their wings to keep up, he cast the rope aside, landing with both arms on an oxygen vine. Glowmoss illuminated his face as he scrambled further down. He felt like he had when he’d carved his face tattoo into Raven and leapt around the castle with no limits. His soul was the lifting rune now.

A dragon plunged downwards and he flattened himself against the vine. The second it was clear, he let go, grabbed another handhold, fell again, and again.

He rolled across a ledge and was running once more, over an outer citadel roof, then down a bridge, into a stairwall. A Neogah had gotten ahead of him, and loomed through the windows as Kio raced through the statuary hall. A hit, and one of the Rokhshan statues toppled in his path.

He was in the air, leaping over it, before he realized it was Sieno Rokhshan. His father.

Dad, he thought as he swung around a corner into the final stairwell, I’ll get them back. I’ll get back all the people who’ve betrayed our family. They betrayed the Harpooneers too.

His heart burned to think of what the Benefactor had done. If the Ash Cloud had a purpose–if its destiny was to touch the Heartsphere–perhaps Year Zero could have been avoided. Perhaps the burned bodies, the piles in the Great Hall, the gardens of bones in the sky kingdoms, all existed to feed Raptor’s selfish greed.

The Neogah pounded the wall again. Shards of stone rained down on Kio’s face. Soaked as he was, he hardly noticed. He cradled the bomb against his chest.

Then he was standing in the Mist Garden, free of dragons for now, with a perfect view of the sea-to-sky wall of green light. He turned away, looking instead into the hole left in the citadel from when he and Karla had dropped the tower so they could ride up to the Sky Kingdom. Sickly green light shone all the way through the hole to the pile of rubble that had blocked the gap when Karla and Kio had entered the Inner Citadel.

A beat of eight leathery wings announced the arrival of the Neogah. They had him this time: above, below, port and starboard, fore and aft. Surrounded. The only way out was in.

Kio smiled. If only I had some way to clear away those rocks.

Jenny’s bomb exploded on contact. He’d thrown it true–heard the clink of the canister on the rubble plug before it went off. Dust and grit rained down on the mist garden. The flash of light seemed to rebuke the Neogah, driving them into a frenzied retreat.

It didn’t last long. Soon their fiery gazes turned back to him.

Kio Rokhshan took a long run-up and made his final leap.

***

Karla transformed.

It had never been possible to stop the emotions flooding in. Raptor had her figured out.

Almost.

He could make her turn, make her lose control of her craft. But he couldn’t decide which way that craft was facing when it happened.

By the time he realized she’d flown clear and sent Raven on a collision course, the impact had already happened. Raptor screamed aloud as the clockwork raven turned missile slammed into his spine where it met the wings.

Battering them so hard each successive beat tore them further away from Raptor’s back.

Karla flew clear, dodging ever-feebler strikes, watching the sky to see when and how the god of the Rokhshan would fall. And fall he did, soon enough, plunging through the bottom wall of cloud toward the ocean.

Karla folded her wings and dove after him. There was no way on land or in the sky that she wasn’t going to make eight hundred percent sure he was dead.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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Breaking 3

Sorry for forgetting to post this yesterday! NaNoWriMo has me all discombobulated. But we remain on schedule, I promise.

Thunder boomed out as Raptor made the first move, feinting toward Karla’s left wing with a claw. She pitched right, but couldn’t dodge in time. The talon raked across Raven’s already-tattered frame, tearing out a strut, widening cracks.

Raven spun in the air. Karla turned to face Raptor as the commander of the Neogah wheeled for another pass. If I can’t counter him, I’m dead!

Going up against the City Council, she thought she’d learned a bit of fighting, but this was so far out of that league she could have laughed.

She had no training for duels in the sky. She barely had training with flight–she and Kio had deluded themselves, clearly, to think that building skycraft equated to flying them. The only part of this situation she was the slightest bit prepared for was the thunderstorm.

But one thing she could do was learn fast.

The green fortress of the Ash Cloud was so close now that it filled one whole section of the sky: a wall as tall as the world. Karla used it to stay oriented, and used the sea to remain upright. Raptor roared and charged again.

When he got near, Karla thrust out her legs–catching him on the nose and starting her into a run. Her lifting rune helped her out. It brought memories of–

No! She refused to even think about the night she’d first transformed. It was too dangerous. Becoming the raven now would torpedo any chance of her winning this fight. She had beaten a Neogah in that form once, long ago–but Raptor was different. Far stronger. The rain that should have dissolved him was instead slicking off him harmlessly. And he would not be that animalistically stupid.

She leapt clear of Raptor’s spine, narrowly dodging a clamp of his jaws. Sheets of rain slicked her hair to her forehead. She could use the rune, if she knew when to leave things slack–if she could figure out how to work with the strange buoyancy in the air that wasn’t coming entirely from her magic.

Raptor attacked with a calculated series of blows, each strike forcing her into the next. The first two buffeted her. The third, she dodged just in time. The fourth and fifth she anticipated, and suddenly she was moving through the air almost as well as she did in her bird’s body. Suddenly it was a real fight.

***

They crested the rim of basin into a swirling vortex of bone dragons.

Jenny had counted the bizarre things. She knew there couldn’t be more than eight Neogah chasing them right now. But the monsters were everywhere she looked–circling, diving and climbing, turning their fiery eyes on her, Uncle Griff, and Kio. The storm whirled around them, the driving rain masking their numbers, making them look like an army.

They should be disintegrating, Kio thought. But that had taken the inside of a thunderhead, or their whole water supply, every other time. This rainstorm wouldn’t be enough.

Kio led the way into the reservoir bowl that had once been full of water. It would be the best place to see the Neogah coming, and would bottleneck them using the towers so they couldn’t all charge at once. A puddle of rain pattered and rolled at the bottom, soaking Jenny’s shoes.

Jenny had gone beyond fear. She was just reacting now, moving from one step to the next. She had fought before. Even a girl of twelve could keep fighting until the fighting was done.

“They’re coming!” she shouted. Behind her, she felt Griff and Kio move into position back-to-back-to-back.

Three of the Neogah–as many as could fit through the gaps in the towers–swooped toward them.

The first one miscalculated, flying too high. Kio leapt at it with his own steel rebar club, missed.

A second dove toward Griffin. Her uncle tensed, preparing to swing.

Jenny’s shot knocked part of its skull clean off, tossing it back toward the tower with the recoil. She screamed in triumph, reaching for another of the bolts clipped to the underside of her heavy crossbow–right as the third dragon found its space to dive.

Griffin swung the bar.

It caught the dragon in one arm with a resounding crunch, but the talon caught Griff at the same time, sending him sprawling backwards across the basin. Flecks of blood dripped from his nose, staining his mask and beard.

Kio leapt in, striking at the Neogah that had left its guard down. He hammered away at its bones. Leapt back when it riposted–and Jenny took her next shot.

This one she retrieved, after the dragon had wheeled out of sight to lick its wound. Still, she had only four bolts left. And there were more Neogah, ever circling, preparing to charge even before Kio could help her uncle to his feet.

***

Rose stayed by the door to make sure everybody got out of the infirmary safely. When someone was coughing too badly to move, she sprang to their side, coaxing, cajoling, prodding and comforting to help them along.

“Rose,” said Mrs. Kalend, who came last, propped up by her husband. “I can’t breathe.”

Rose wanted to hit something. She wanted her wrench in her hand. Tears sprang to her eyes. This woman, this mighty blacksmith–Rose had idolized her since arriving in Rust, more than Grace or even Mara, for her steady certainty at the forge.

What was it all for?

“Stay low to the ground,” was all she could say. “It’s an aerial phenomenon. The lower you are, the more oxygen you’ll be able to find. Follow Calvin down to the docks, and get to safety.”

“Wait. What?” The callow youth appeared around the doorway.

“I need you for this,” Rose said. “Please. I need you to take the people who can’t fight to the docks. Load them up on whatever boats are available. Find your dad and Jada and tell them to come with you in case anybody objects to their boat being taken.”

“But I just–I don’t–” Calvin spluttered. “Why can’t you? Why can’t I go with you?”

“Because we’re the diversion.” Rose began to realize the nature of her plan as she said the words. “The people who go with me are going to distract the Torals long enough for everybody else to escape. They’ll never let us out otherwise.”

“And then you’ll retreat and follow us, right?”

“Ideally,” Rose said jauntily, “that would be the plan.”

Calvin looked unconvinced. But he helped her split the escapees into two groups. People who had heard the conversation spoke up, volunteered to show the Torals where they could stick their Imperial decrees that they owned the sky. Grace stood by Rose’s side.

Soon she had her group. Calvin had his. “Go,” she told him. “Find life. Find the greatest island there is in this world. I hope the treasure’s already on the ground and nobody can find the isle who doesn’t already know where it is.”

“Except you,” Calvin said determinedly, and turned away.

It was only after she’d started moving her dozen militiamen through the streets that Rose noticed the Carpenter twins had snuck along. She sighed, knowing it would take more energy than she had to send them back to their mother. “At the first sign of danger,” she told Dan and Guy, “you run.”

They both nodded. “No need to tell me!” Dan said happily. “We can breathe fine, we’ll just run.”

Keep breathing, Rose thought, taking short breaths, as she crept through the streets toward the Torals. Keep breathing.

***

Karla danced through the air like a cloud. Her shredded wing fought her every step of the way, but she moved with its resistance, pivoting to parry Raptor’s attacks with her feet or Raven’s spine.

And all the while she rejoiced that Raven had been true. She is, she is, she is going to save us!

Yet all the dancing and sky-fencing in the world wouldn’t help the fact that she had no plan. They fought without weapons, with the thunderheads and clouds as their battleground, weaving in and out of columns of rain and bolts of wind. Without weapons, Raptor was still a thirty-pace dragon, and Karla was one lone, bedraggled Harpooneer.

She’d be drowned if she wouldn’t make him chase her.

A voice echoed through the clouds that she at first took to be a rumble of thunder. Suddenly, though, she careened through a curtain of cirrus crystals and entered an eye: an open, cavernous room in the center of the storm, surrounded by dark mist.

Raptor faced her from the other end of the Nashido-sized chamber. And he was speaking.

“Look to the Ash Cloud,” ground his terrible voice, “when the sky opens up. It has engulfed the castle and never touched the Heartsphere. But it has killed your friends.”

As the thought of the deaths of Kio and Jenny and Griffin tugged at Karla’s very shape, one single horrifying truth asserted itself: he’s trying to make me turn.

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Breaking 2

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Destroy Castle Nashido.

The very thought was mad. Like the only home Kio had ever known was some enemy base to be bombed into oblivion. He knew nothing about the surface, had no love for it except for what he had conjured out of his own dreams–and here he was conspiring with two of its residents to wipe out every last shred of the Rokhshan legacy. All the mosaics and the lavish rooms, the Great Hall above the machine deck, the statues and the books…all of it, consigned to the sea. His last memories of his family gone forever from his reach.

The legacy was a lie anyway, he thought, and the hardness of that sentence bolstered his will. None of it matters. Nothing but the Ash Cloud.

And the mad risk he had hitched himself to. If Raptor was telling the truth, Kio was selling out the world for an illusion of his own safety.

Raptor had told many lies, but he didn’t speak entirely in falsehoods. Yet could he be tricking Kio into poisoning the world? Could the god’s rage be merely another manipulation?

No, that made no sense. Gods needed subjects to rule.

The three of them emerged into the Outer Citadel’s upper hallway, the airy, windblown space that had once served his family as a sort of pleasure colonnade. Jenny and Griffin covered their faces with their gas masks. Kio wore nothing on his face but the Rokhshan mark.

Kio kept moving only by the certainty that he was going to die either way. He had always pictured himself dying in the midst of some great task–for some reason, had never imagined himself growing old. Now, he had his chance.

“The castle is built like a puzzle box,” he told Jenny and Griffin as they ran through the lavish hall toward the apex of the sphere. “It’s held together mechanically, with anything hanging off the sphere being driven into the overall structure. Karla and I have taken towers off before. We’ve moved rooms because they got in the way of our systems.”

“So the Heartsphere is the only place anything is actually attached?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah.” He searched for a metaphor she’d understand. “It’s like a skycraft. There’s a center of gravity where all the lift and tension is focused.”

The girl perked up. “Then all we have to do is unscrew one of the towers until we expose the sphere?”

“It’s not that simple.” Kio paused right before the stairs up to the reservoir. “First of all, towers aren’t jar lids. You can’t just unscrew them. Second, there’s a powerful force holding them onto the sphere–I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of rune. And third–”

Jenny asked, “Rune?” right as Griffin finished Kio’s sentence. “The Neogah!”

The green light in the window rippled over with the shadows of dragons.

Kio scrambled, Jenny racing ahead, grabbing something from the floor along the way. She and Kio slid in beside her uncle behind an overturned bookshelf, where Griffin looked incredulously at Jenny’s weapon. “You want to fight dragons with a table leg?”

“You want to fight dragons with your bare hands?”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh, no.” Jenny turned to Kio. “That’s his I-used-to-get-in-fights look.”

Kio, however, had seen what else lay in Griffin’s expression. His engineering skills had been at work, and one of Raptor’s own designs was there to practice on.

Except it wasn’t complete.

In a flash, Griffin vaulted the shelf, racing toward the net launcher mounted in the window. The Neogah with the crossbow turned it toward him.

“Run that way!” Jenny cried out.

“But the launcher isn’t–”

“I don’t care! If he dies I’ll kill you!”

Kio and Jenny sprinted from behind their bookshelf in opposite directions. The Neogah saw new targets, overcorrected, and let his bolt fly between Griffin and Jenny. Kio circled quickly toward the machine. By now, Griffin must have noticed it was missing two gears, on the bottom-right side.

It’s like a spear-launcher. I just need to recreate that mechanism…

“Not yet!” he cried as Griffin took hold of the launcher’s handles.

“Then when!?”

“Count of three! One…”

A Neogah lunged at the window. Jenny swung the table leg with all her might, batting on the nose.

“…two…”

Kio yanked out a strut and the rotating column dropped half an inch. That would have to work.

“…three!”

With an elastic-y twang, Griffin let the net fly, entangling the armed Neogah just as it prepared another ballista shot. The bolt sailed just under the net, and bounced with a thunderous clap off the wall beneath the window.

The net found its mark, snaring around the creature’s weapon. For a second, Griffin and the dragon stared each other down, each uncertain.

“Reel it back reel it back reel it back!” Kio shouted.

“How!?”

Kio elbowed Griffin out of the way, disengaged the handle, and unlocked it, cranking hard. The weapon slipped out of the Neogah’s claws.

“Jenny!” Griffin slid to cover behind the window ledge. “We’ve found you something better!”

***

Almost…Karla chanted to herself.

The curtains of rain and the windblown clouds dragged her visibility range down so low she could only see by lightning. So, using flash after flash for light, grateful every time that the electricity was discharging much higher in the sky, she scratched a rune into the underside of the broken Raven.

When she had leapt out of the hangar, their ornithopter had been hardly better than a glider, and in most ways worse. She could feel herself losing altitude like most people could feel if they were bleeding.

The only thing that saved her was the memory of a face. Quite a vivid one, actually, given the range of emotions she’d seen on it just before jumping into the sky. Given it had been the last one she’d seen.

Kio’s tattoo was as complex and intricate as any magical rune. She had never made any conscious attempt to memorize it. Yet still, there it lay in her head, waiting to be drawn out.

She glided through the wasteland of wind and rain, and carved. And when she got the last line just right, and the glow of power began to shine through the rune, she got to work on a second.

At least, until the next strike of lightning gave her a chance to look behind her.

Raptor had become even more monstrous, somehow, than his typical dragon form. His four wings were spread out to their tips, but this time, red veins of power glistened across them, a spiderweb of hatred. Twelve of her could have fit comfortable into the cavity of his ribcage. His eyes burned the same sickly green as the Ash Cloud. His claws stretched out, reaching for her.

Karla banked around. The wind carried her onward.

“Right,” she shouted as she faced him, “you lying disgrace to the gods! You murderer of the sky kingdoms and the landling slaves! You fountain of everything that sucks! Come get me!”

***

“People are dying in here!” Rose shouted. “Dying! Does that mean anything to you? Does the life of your precious Emperor mean anything to you?”

Other voices shouted along with her, a whole town bellowing itself hoarse, but some began to slacken as coughing and troubled breathing overtook them. Outside, the guards at the infirmary door remained implacable, listening to what must have sounded like the worst excuse to open a prison door they had ever heard.

As she caught her breath, Rose fought back thoughts of far worse fates. The ceremony for the Emperor’s arrival would begin soon, and these men might be called off to stand in formation, leaving everyone in the town to choke to death with no hope of breaking out of this cave.

No. The keys were here now. They might leave at any time.

They had to act.

Rose searched the crowd and caught sight of the McConnells, sitting stoically together off to the side. Only Calvin had begun to hack and cough so far. Grace dabbed his forehead with a cloth, for want of anything else she could do, while Adam kept springing up and sitting back down again.

“The guards aren’t looking in here,” she told them after wading over to them. “If we’re going to escape, it has to be right now.”

“What’s your plan?” Grace handed the damp cloth to Calvin, who managed to get to his feet.

“Wait here, and move when I tell you.”

The Torals had cleaned out her best medicines. But they hadn’t taken the worthless ones. The ones she kept in dusty bottles at the backs of her drawers, on her bottom shelves, too nondescript to contain anything worthwhile. The ones every Remedium graduate was trained to use in emergencies, the ones they hoped would never come.

This wasn’t quite that sort of emergency. But it was dire enough nonetheless.

These marines were probably trained to hold their breaths for ten minutes or something–they would fall last to the Ash Cloud. But a concentrated vapor could get them a bit faster.

Of course they whirled around when Rose threw the first vial to shatter on the hard dirt at their feet. Of course they had their crossbows locked and loaded by the time she hurled the second. What they couldn’t prepare for was how quickly Rose’s strongest medicine worked.

Their shots went wide. Their muscles went limp. They began to slump.

Grace and Adam surged forward. Each of them marked one of the marines and caught them through the bars as they fell, dragging their unconscious forms closer to the portal. Calvin and Rose squatted down and searched them both.

Rose came up with the ring of keys. “All right, everyone!” she shouted, holding it aloft. Those not busy fighting to breathe turned toward her. “We’re getting out of here!”

***

Jenny’s first shot with the ballista missed. Her second–executed while Kio and Griffin dragged her backwards to safety–shattered the ribcage of the Neogah who had once held the weapon. The dragon roared, swooped below the level of the window.

Kio said, “I think I have a pressure point for us to attack. There’s just one problem.”

Jenny gritted her teeth. “From now on I’m just gonna assume there’s at least one problem unless you tell me something different.”

“We can’t reach it from here. We have to go outside.”

Griffin shook his head. “That’ll expose us.”

“There’s no plan that doesn’t!”

In the stairway, Kio found what he’d been hoping was still there. “Take this,” he said, handing a heavy steel bar to Griffin. “It’s left over from the last time I repaired our aqueducts.”

“A sword to slay a dragon?” Griffin hefted the rebar dubiously.

“Don’t you want a weapon?” Jenny asked Kio, hand firmly on the stock of her oversized crossbow.

“I was gonna ask you, actually,” he replied. “I think I choose your bomb.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Breaking 1

The penultimate arc of the serial begins now! And it will start, as usual, with your increasingly regular reminder to vote for The Clockwork Raven on Top Web Fiction. Click here, and then enjoy the chapter!

Healer Rose hammered on the iron bars of the door the Torals had installed across the entrance to her infirmary cavern. “Listen to me, you bloodthirsty idiots!” she shouted at the two implacable marines posted outside the door. “People can’t breathe in here!”

One of them deigned to glance inside the cave. “There’s plenty of space,” he grunted.

“Space is not the problem!”

She wanted to reach through the bars and shake the clay-brained men until they saw reason, but wasn’t sure she’d be able to budge one of them with both hands. It had been bad enough when they’d repurposed her infirmary as a holding pen. It had been worse when they’d cleared out all the medical supplies before locking the door, to treat the minor cuts and bruises the Toral marines had suffered in the house-to-house fighting–during which they hadn’t lost a single man.

But now she had patients in here that they were refusing to help. There was nothing, nothing in the world, worse than denying assistance to the weak.

Rose believed a person’s character came through most clearly when they had someone else completely in their power. And the Toral Emperor had shown his hand.

At the sound of a hacking cough, she gave up on the gate, and forced her way back through the crowd of restless, murmuring Ruster prisoners. People parted to let her through, while she prayed on the eight-pointed star that they wouldn’t realize there was nothing she could do.

The victims of the coughing fits were two elderly traders she recognized from earlier checkups, a man and a woman. They huddled together while people huddled around them, bringing water in Rose’s cups from the pump installed in her back room.

As the crowd parted, Rose saw they had been joined by a young girl. She nearly stumbled into the crowd, had to be gently reoriented by a few pairs of hands. The little one looked so much like Jenny had, only a few years after Griffin had carried her alive out of the sea.

Rose crouched beside her. “Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” the kid said defensively. Rose’s mouth twisted. She’d never treated illness like a personal failing when she’d been that age, not when there was school to stay home from.

“If you don’t tell me, I can’t help.”

“I said I’m–” A coughing fit drowned whatever the girl was going to say next. Despite being halfway through a hacking cough himself, the old man put a hand on her shoulder. In spite of herself, the girl shrank closer to him.

A knife twisted in Rose’s gut. All three of them were gasping and coughing now, leaning on each other. “Is it your lungs?” she asked. “Your throat?”

The little girl shook her head. “It’s the air. It’s just a bit hard to breathe.”

The air? Rose stood up, looked around. What’s wrong with the air?

Other than the way it looks a little bit green?

Now others were coughing. People in the crowd, too many for her to see if they had any traits in common. The coughs popped up far too quickly.

Rose felt a tickle at the back of her own throat.

The Toral guards stood implacably at the barred door of the cave.

***

Two flights of stairs later, Kio found himself leading, trailed by two gas-masked strangers from the surface. The man, Griffin, trailed in the back, his uncovered eyes hungrily taking in every aspect of Kio’s home. The girl Jenny had fished another cylinder out of her satchel.

Kio stopped them in the middle of an outer-citadel solarium with broken glass scattered on the floor. “What is that?”

“Bomb,” she said bluntly. “I hope it took out a few of those dragons. What the hell are those things, anyway?”

“Those are our enemies. How many more of those have you got?”

“One.” He read the concern in Jenny’s eyes.

“There’s definitely more than one dragon left.” Griffin came up beside her. “Perhaps we could force them all through a bottleneck somehow…”

A claw shot through the window and the trio scattered, running independently for the ladder. “Talk while we climb!” Kio commanded.

The Neogah’s claw groped after Griffin as he waited for Kio and Jenny to clamber up first. When they were all safely in the small pantry that lead to the Inner Citadel Heartsphere antechamber, the two surfacers slammed the trapdoor shut.

Jenny accosted Kio. “Raptor runs this place. Him and his dragons. Is that always how it’s been? Have we been flying toward this guy’s trap for twenty years?”

“No,” Kio said. “Yes. It’s complicated. What have you been doing for twenty years?”

“Hunting for treasure. There’s a crystal down there that glows whenever your castle flies overhead, and people built a whole town around it. You do have treasure?”

“Sure!” Kio flung his arm out. “Ancient books, gold candleholders, fancy goblets, whatever. Take as much as you want. If we survive.”

All of them held their breath as a rasping sound rattled along the floor below. The room was barely lit, with just a little glowmoss in the corner casting light over the scene. The dragon’s claw was searching, searching, for a way inside.

“I think it’s clear what we need to do,” Griffin said, eyeing the ladder up.

Kio nodded. He was glad somebody else was saying it first. He didn’t even want to think about it for too long.

Jenny looked from one to the other. “What are you two nodding about? What do we need to do?”

“Kio told us already,” Griffin said. “What’s the one thing Raptor wants to make sure never happens?”

“The Ash Cloud touching the Heartsphere.”

“Right. We need to make certain it does.”

“Hold on!” Kio cried, loud enough to drown out the screeching claws below. He had been thinking of something completely different. “I meant we need to use the Heartsphere to save the people in your town.”

Yet, now that he pondered…Griffin’s words seemed to match the dark pool of thoughts boiling below his idea.

What if Castle Nashido needed to be destroyed?

How would he do it?

It was the final engineering problem. The last device. And Karla had left him alone to solve it.

“Why not both?” Jenny asked.

“What?” Kio swiveled to face the young girl.

“I mean, I’m just a dumb little kid here, but why can’t we do both of the things you want? Why can’t we blow up the castle and land the sphere at Rust Town to save everyone?”

“We wouldn’t need to blow up the castle,” Kio said automatically. “Just leave one gap. A shaft for the Ash to get in.”

“So no. There’s no reason.”

“Jenny,” Griffin said, voice full of warning.

The trapdoor jumped out of the floor.

Griffin hurled Jenny toward the ladder. Jenny was up in a flash. Kio leapt, stamping on the trapdoor, and raised his head to see the landling engineer scampering after her.

He took a deep breath, in-out, then followed.

He still had no idea how the claw had managed to work its way inside the solarium. But that wasn’t much help in dealing with the razor-sharp bone plates slicing at his heels. Coiled, Kio sprang, letting the talons hack at the air below him as he sailed toward the ladder.

His hands found purchase and he hastened to the top. Jenny and Griffin were there to pull him up.

“The Benefactor—Raptor told me that–”

A bolt the size of a javelin shot through the air between Kio and the landlings. They scattered. Kio tripped over a stuffed chair. Griffin hauled Jenny back behind a table.

“Outside!” Jenny screamed, pointing into the green-tinged night.

Another Neogah hovered outside the window, fitting a second bolt into a crossbow it had torn directly off the battlements. Through the picture window, it had a bead on the entire room. If any of the three moved, they’d expose themselves to a shot.

The two landlings’ masks rattled faster as they breathed. In. Out. Hearts racing. Breath uncertain, like they at last felt the altitude, or like the Inner Citadel was leaking again.

“Raptor told me that the Ash Cloud would spread across the whole world if it touched the Heartsphere,” he whispered, as though speaking too loudly would set off the trigger.

“And you believed him?” Jenny’s mask scrunched. “Dude, he was engineering you!”

“I know!” Kio hissed. “But…”

“I understand you don’t want to risk it.” Griffin was curled behind the table, and spoke facing away from Kio. “However, if we do nothing, our masks might fail. You have no protection. Nor do they have any in Rust Town. Not to mention, a thousand years once passed between Ash Clouds. The last one was ten years ago. Will we have another next year? And another the next month?” His voice was wracked with some inner pain Kio wondered at. “This is a cycle. And we must end it.”

“Besides,” Jenny spoke up, “there’s only so much Ash. If it spread across the entire world it would dilute.”

“Yeah.” Kio didn’t feel convinced. Yet if Raptor had truly wanted to save the world, he wouldn’t have needed to resort to such deception. His heart told him the god hadn’t told the truth.

Kio needed to find out what the meeting of cloud and sphere would do. The Ash Clouds had to end.

No more Year Zeros. For me, or these people, or anyone ever again.

“When I say run,” he said, “you run.”

Something in his voice convinced them. So much that he wished he had something cooler to do than hurl furniture at a dragon. But that was not his lot.

He launched the marble-topped table through the window. The dragon’s crossbow twanged. As the bolt thudded into the marble, and everybody started running again, Jenny shouted, “Right, men! I’ve never blown up a castle before. Anyone have any ideas about where to start?”

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Ash 5

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The four Neogah swept into the hangar and dropped Karla and Kio unceremoniously on the stone floor. Practiced at falling off things, Kio tried to crumple his limbs, and only succeeded in jarring an extra seven or eight points on his body.

He tried to straighten up. One of the dragons shot a claw in and shoved him back to his knees.

I remember when they were mindless beasts, he thought, watching Karla be similarly forced down. Things I could pity. Now…

Now–something took shape in his mind. It was hard to focus on, though, when faced with the gazes of the two strangers, Jenny and Griffin. The older man’s eyes were downcast, the girl’s darting around to seek an escape route, looking pretty justifiably upset whenever they caught Kio’s.

With his four captives secured, Raptor stepped down from the lift. Rain whipped through the green-tinged air, punctuating his words.

“I had such high hopes for you all,” he said, shaking his head at Kio and Karla. “When the first Ash Cloud came and wiped out the Rokhshan, I thought my whole mission was doomed. But then came the two of you.” A rueful smile gathered beneath his cold eyes. “Resourceful. Arrogant, even. And so utterly trusting in one another.”

“We’re not here for your mission!” The landling engineer, Jenny, wrestled against the claw keeping her in place. “Whatever the Rokhshan–”

Raptor swiveled on his heel. “When I want the opinion of a surface-dwelling mud rat, I will make my own way down to your doomed island to listen to the inane chatter of your friends. Is that clear?”

Jenny kept struggling, but choked out a sob, a sound that seemed to tear through Griffin’s heart.

Raptor turned away as though he’d finished disposing of a rotten cabbage leaf. “We couldn’t tolerate an infiltrator aboard the castle, of course,” he said to Karla. “Medwick–poor, departed Medwick–did his very best to split you apart, to create the opening for me to make you,” he tapped Kio under his chin, “into the second Great Rokhshan. His attempts were boneheaded, of course. In the end, the only solution–the only way for me to take back my castle–was to let you destroy one another.”

“Nashido will never be your castle,” Kio growled.

“Is that right?” Raptor burst into laughter. “Because what I see, Great Rokhshan, is the Ash Cloud approaching. That Ash Cloud will roll over this place, and it will kill all of you, and spare me…and it will never touch the Heartsphere.”

He tapped his sword on the ground along with those final words. “I will get everything I want. Including Nashido. And the deaths of all of you.”

“You…” Kio’s thoughts raced. The Neogah circling and the rain and the burning gazes of the other three made it hard to focus. “You need the Rokhshan.”

“I needed the Rokhshan,” Raptor corrected. “I needed them to build all the layers of this castle around the Heartsphere. My mistake was in allowing jumped-up surface scum to continue playing at lord, long after your family’s usefulness had run out. What had they accomplished for five hundred years anyway? Sucking up to the sky kingdoms? Making mosaics?”

“You want to stop the cloud from ever touching the Heartsphere,” Karla said.

Raptor hardly acknowledged her. But Kio noticed. She had made him an invitation to do what he did best: figure out what was going on.

At the same time, she looked at Jenny and Griffin, and gave them a promise too. In his heart Kio knew what she had said. Give him some time. We’ll do this together.

“What will happen?” he asked Raptor. “What will really happen? We’re going to die here, you might as well tell us.”

“We are not going to die,” Raptor replied, and Kio knew he had pushed too hard. “The four of you are going to die. My friends and I will survive.”

He latched onto information. “How? By entering the Heartsphere? Breaking your own first rule? Again?”

“Gods need not follow the rules they set for their worshippers. It is the most meaningful way in which Iam a god.”

“So you will enter the Heartsphere.”

Raptor turned away.

In his turning were multitudes. He had ended discussion without giving a true answer, but without the obvious yes. Could he have another way to survive?

He met Karla’s eye. Maybe, he could imagine her thinking. We know he’s already done it once. But what if he isn’t going to enter?

What if, thought Kio, the reason he isn’t going to enter is the source of all this mess? The secret behind Nashido and the Rokhshan, behind Rust Town and Karla and me?

And he had it.

“You won’t be in the Heartsphere, will you?”

Raptor didn’t turn around.

“Look at me,” Kio challenged. “After all you’ve done to my family, after what you’ve done to Karla, after the work we both did together, you owe me that much!”

Slowly, the god on the lift turned to face the young Rokhshan.

“You won’t enter the Heartsphere because the Ash Cloud won’t poison you. It only poisons humans. And you’re not a human.”

Karla sucked in breath, and Kio knew he was right.

“You weren’t a human when you entered the sphere for the first time,” he told the Benefactor. “You were a Neogah.”

The Benefactor stared.

“Your shift isn’t a raven or a cat or a bone dragon. It’s a human.”

“Kill them all,” Raptor snapped to his servants. His sword flashed naked at his side. “They are all responsible for the murder of Medwick. I will not wait for them to die.”

In the split second before the Neogah advanced, Karla caught Kio’s eye one more time.

And both of them, at once, knew. In spite of the secrets. In spite of everything.

They knew exactly what the other was thinking.

They drew their plan, fully-formed, as though out of the storm, and set it in motion without a single word.

Karla ran, weaving between the Neogah, darting towards the half-broken shell of the original Raven.

The Neogah followed her sudden movement, including the ones holding Jenny and Dr. Griffin. The two Rusters freed their arms, pulled their face-masks back up around their mouths.

Jenny pulled a second cylinder from her bag, hurled it directly at Raptor. The god deflected the bomb aside. Kio ran past it, holding his breath as it bounced.

Between Griffin and Jenny now, Kio ran up the stairs three at a time. Behind him, he heard Raptor swear.

“Kill them!” he screamed at the Neogah. “I’ll go after the girl myself!”

He risked one more look. The craft they had worked on for years, the one that had been meant to save them, was airborne. And Karla was piloting it.

Raptor leapt. The other Neogah followed, swinging around, ready for the kill.

As the hangar exploded, roof and floor and workshop and their whole calendar of days falling toward the surface, two pairs of arms dragged Kio safely into the Outer Citadel.

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Ash 4

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Karla was the first to regain sight, though a tremendous ringing filled her ears. Even the two flyers were reeling, their craft having stalled as they drifted over the towers. Losing altitude.

“Hangar,” she tried to say, but it came out as a croak.

She could land them. Could land them right now. Pilots from Rust Town who flew for the sphere always had somebody on the ground, some loved one making sure their landing strip was clear. They flew heedless of their lack of any similar assistance on the other end.

Well, she wasn’t going to let her friends go without a landing control. Not when they’d been so kind to her, put themselves at so much risk to do it.

If she could just move her damn arms!

The Raven prototype was nearly clear of the upper citadel. Soon it would be out of reach. With all this wind and rain they’d never hear anything.

She forced all her terror into one last desperate shout.

“Hangar!”

***

It was Griffin who heard the shout, although he was distracted by treading air. Aside from buoying his craft on its vertical surge through the sky, the air in front of the Ash Cloud was easier to steer in–as though he were just paddling his arms in a thick molasses sludge. But even that couldn’t keep him and Jenny still forever.

He wasted no time. “Karla says there’s a hangar!”

“Where?” Sweat was mingling with the rain on Jenny’s brow. In one heartstopping look, Griffin remembered she was twelve.

I will protect you, he vowed. Just like that time before.

They banked to port. Griffin stole another look at Karla. The Harpooneer was gasping, winded, seemingly only able to look one way–and not at all the scattered, shattered bones of the horrific thing Jenny had blown up.

At the scattered, broken form of a boy. Kio.

***

He’s gone, Karla thought. She thought that she would know for certain when this happened, that their close bond at least entitled her to some sort of message. Yet there was nothing. Just the storm and the rain.

Then he twitched. Opened one eye to look at her.

And she did feel something–a surge of warm energy that threw off the cold of the storm and sent her limbs just enough strength to move.

One move begat another. Karla was on her feet.

***

“She’s pointing!” Griffin called to Jenny. “Hard port!”

Perfectly in sync, they arced around the castle, leaving the Ash Cloud astern. The wind at their back felt like a hand of terrible destiny pressing Griff onward. Through his mask and the greening air he saw the facets of the flying castle slide past: the swaths of moss glowing bright against the dark, the stout vines, a crown on top that looked like a water catchment system by way of a child’s tree fort.

Did they really build all of this?

They rushed out of sight of Karla. Jenny pointed out the hangar at the same time Griffin noticed it.

Coming around the corner of the floating isle, hurtling to cut them off, were the rest of the skeletal monsters.

“Come on!” Griffin shouted, angling toward the open sides of the expansive empty room hanging off the bottom end of the sphere. “They can’t follow us in there–the opening’s too small!”

***

“Karla, wait!” Kio nearly went feline again before taking several seconds to get his vision of the black room under control. “You can’t let them go there!”

“What?” Karla shouted. They ran toward each other around the rim, skidding, grabbing hands to keep from falling down.

“Don’t send them to the hangar,” Kio said. “Don’t let them land there, it’s not safe.”

“Nowhere’s safe. They’ll be safer there than in the sky.”

“No,” Kio shook his head. “Raptor’s still there!”

Karla swore.

The green light from the Ash Cloud shone on her face. A shadow passed over it, then another.

They were being swarmed by Neogah.

***

The landing was easy. They had nobody clearing the airstrip, sure, but there was a lot of airstrip, and nobody to get in the way. Or rather, the person planning to get in the way preferred to allow them to land first.

Jenny and Griffin braked hard, throwing out their ornithopter’s wings to present a broad surface area. The drag caught them, whipping them back to drift through the hangar’s open wall. Beyond was an expanse of the grey-brown stone the whole castle was built out of, with strange marks gouged into the floor.

The dragons circled behind them, unable to enter just as her uncle had predicted. Jenny winced as her feet hit the floor, but ran alongside Griff, tapping out a safe landing as they skidded to a halt.

Her torso and arms burned from the harness. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been holding herself aloft, fighting for her life. As hastily as she would have if she’d crash-landed in the ocean again, she unbuckled it with fumbling fingers, and took her first steps on the Sphere.

Jenny’s entire body coursed with a thrill. We’re actually here! The castle all around her was real, solid, her parents’ dream and her uncle’s and her own summoned out of the ethereal world.

She leapt clear of the harness. Damn the dragons. “We’re here!” she shouted.

“Yes,” Dr. Griffin said, not sounding excited. When she turned to him, she founding him staring upward.

At a lift descending from a room in the ceiling, carrying a black-cloaked man who was smiling as though they’d both just finished telling an excellent joke.

***

Karla watched Kio’s face: green from the air, but stoic otherwise. His tattoo seemed a barrier against the world now, a holding of his own unique self against the void. This far, it said. No farther.

The Neogah formed up: four of them now.

Kio said, “We’re going to die.”

Karla said, “Not while we’re together.”

It was all so stupid it hurt to think about. How had they ever countenanced behaving in such a way? Yelling and shrieking about lies and secrets–if they could have talked rationally about them at the beginning, they could have done so now. A promise held. It could repair itself each time it broke, as long as the people who made it were willing, and deserving. It was a beautiful thing.

“Ready to fight?” she asked.

He swallowed. “I’m ready to run.”

“All right,” she told him with a smile. “We can do both.”

That was the last thing she said before the Neogah swooped in. In four sets of talons, two of them each gripped Karla and Kio, and held fast even as they shifted forms as violently and quickly as they could.

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Thank you to Lynne, Pauline, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Ash 3

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“Did you see that?”

Jenny really hoped Griffin’s answer was going to be yes. Her arms were burning, her breath was coming short even through the gas mask, and she was starting to worry her co-pilot was going to bail and start a civil war in an effort to point Raven toward land.

But when Griffin nodded, his eyes were excited above his own mask. His gaze fixed on the forward face of the castle, the one pointing away from the Ash Cloud–where a waterfall had burst forth from nowhere. Rivulets were still winding their way down the turrets and falling out into the sky.

“Do you think that’s her?” she asked.

“I think that’s them,” Griffin replied. “Karla and Kio. It sounds like the sort of thing she said they were able to do together.”

They flew a circular path before the castle to stay within sight of the newly-created weak spot. Jenny tried to bring the corkscrew closer: whenever they flew far from the castle, breathing got even harder, and she suspected that had more to do with oxygen levels at massive elevation than with any sort of deadly cloud.

“I think we have our landing strip!” Griffin yelled.

“Right-ho!” Jenny cried. Together, they turned toward the castle. For a brief second, Jenny’s hand brushed the other, heavier shape in her flight bag.

Kio shifted immediately. It was amazing how easy it had become–as though for days, a storm of heightened emotion had been building in him, and now he just needed to reach down and pluck whatever he needed.

He needed speed. His clunky human body was great at reading books and fixing things and sometimes even making plans. But it was also great at having way too much surface area to fit into a talon, and not nearly enough swiftness to distract Medwick from looking at Karla.

For the dragon only seemed to have eyes for her.

Medwick milked his entrance for only a second longer, pounding his wings to hover in place. Then he dove for Karla. “You are my fated nuisance,” he shouted, “princess Harpooneer!”

Karla was ready for him. Kio, yowling frantically to draw attention, saw a kitchen knife flash into her right hand, then slash through a piece of rope to leave a clean coil behind. Karla whipped the end of the cord through the air.

She’d cut the pulley-rope free for a weapon. We’ll be forever rebalancing that lift, Kio thought absurdly, then charged toward her.

Karla faked sideways, throwing the end of the rope at Medwick, trying to tangle his joints. She only succeeded in dodging, forcing the dragon priest to fake between towers. “Who are you?” she shouted at his retreating leg-tangle. “Who’s Raptor? What does he have on you?”

The clacking reply sounded from behind the tower: “He created me!”

***

Karla fumbled reeling in the rope. The end of it came back damp from the rain, which gave her an idea–one she could barely focus on over the strangeness of Medwick’s words.

“What do you mean he created you?” she shouted around the tower. Her fingers, of their own accord, began to knot the end of the rope. On the other rim of the basin, cat-Kio was dashing back and forth, still trying to get Medwick to notice him.

The dragon surged around the opposite corner of the tower, and Karla wasted no time whipping the rope at his skull. Medwick’s talons gripped the stone and he skidded around Karla. Their dance began again, as though only moments separated them from their deadly duel in the kitchen.

“Our kind,” Medwick said, “have no names. No titles, no property, no selves. Raptor named me, just like he named the Rokhshan.”

“Your kind?” Karla asked. “The people from the sky kingdom?”

His tail smashed against the ground, forcing her to leap aside and go skidding down into the now-empty basin. “You understand so little.”

“Tell me!” she begged. “Tell the big bad Harpooneer what you really want, and we might be able to understand each other. If you go on like this, we’ll just fight until there’s nothing left!”

“You are wrong!” Medwick roared. “There will be Nashido! With no Rokhshan or Harpooneers left, this castle will still be all we need!”

His claws gripped the edge of the basin. Karla raised the end of her rope that she’d knotted into a club.

Kio howled.

That was when Medwick noticed him.

***

Jenny noticed the cat too. Even in the stormy, sickly-green, poison-wracked night, the little black blur was a revelation. She held her course as it sprang onto the dragon-thing’s claw, then leapt to its wing, scampering up to its spine.

She snarled in frustration. What was it doing? Fighting what was clearly the bad guy, sure, but she couldn’t use her secret weapon with a good guy in the vicinity…

They passed by so high that Jenny barely noticed Karla in the big bowl on top of the castle–and Karla didn’t see them at all. Suddenly Dr. Griffin let go of the bar to grab her arm.

“What is that?” he asked, pointing at the object in her left hand. Raven skimmed across the top of a tower.

Jenny swore in her head. No time. She turned her mask to her uncle, and showed him the cylinder. “You remember how the City Council had those bombs?”

“You took one?”

“They were just sitting there on a table, nobody was guarding them!”

“They?”

“I took three. Not one.”

“You–” Griffin literlly spluttered. “And you’re keeping them in the same bag!?”

Despite the desperation of their situation–hanging in the poison sky as virtual prisoners of heavily-armed skeleton dragons–Uncle Griff found time to get upset about her mishandling of materials. Though she conceded it made sense to spare extra time for explosives.

But it was not a gift they could afford to question. Jenny leaned all her weight to port. “Turn us around!”

“You have an idea?”

“I have a bomb!”

***

“For too long,” Medwick clawed at them both, “I have watched you two make a mess of our castle. I’ve watched you ruin its beauty with your machines and your daydreams of some pathetic destiny as a surface sheepherder. No more!”

Above him, Karla saw the winged shape pass, saw the dark cylinder fall.

She, of course, recognized it–knew it to be a weapon with far more punch than her knotted rope.

And she knew it wasn’t going to hit Medwick. Jenny hadn’t dropped it at the right time. It was much more likely to roll down into the basin and blow Karla to bits from below.

She scrambled out, slipped on the sheer sides, went sprawling back to the bottom. Her heart banged away. Not enough time.

Karla looked up at Kio, and shouted out a word.

***

Kio saw the cylinder too. His cat-mind could even parse Medwick’s words of rage. They were too loud and angry not to hear.

“Give me back my castle!” the Neogah-shifter thundered. “Give me back my heartsphere!”

He ran on instinct. The bomb was going to miss on its current path.

Kio could redirect it.

A flying spring took him into the air, closing the distance to the falling bomb. He plucked it from the air like a feather off a gull, wrapped it in all four paws, and shifted again, into a human with something important in his hands.

“Throw it!” Karla shouted from the basin.

Medwick was high. She was low. There would never be a better shot.

Kio threw the cylinder.

As the explosion of white light whirled around the lightning, amid the thunder, Kio, on the ground with his hands over his head, could only think: that stupid body was good for something after all.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

This week, we offer a very special thanks to Pauline Chapman for her new pledge! And thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.